For concern, not panic

For concern, not panic

March 21st, 2011 in Opinion Free Press

As the world mourns the loss of life from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, there is understandable alarm about damage to nuclear reactors caused by the natural disasters.

Workers have struggled to prevent a lethal release of radiation from affected reactors - an effort that continues at this writing.

It goes without saying that every reasonable measure should be taken to prevent radiation-related illness or death. And thorough consideration should be given to what further measures may be necessary to fortify nuclear reactors in quake- and tsunami-prone areas.

But it would be a mistake for U.S. politicians to use the Japanese disaster as a pretext to harshly restrict our own safe, successful nuclear power generation.

Unfortunately, we are already seeing signs that panic in the United States about the situation in Japan may derail or seriously delay necessary nuclear power projects here.

To cite just one example, U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., declared on "Face the Nation" that the United States should "quietly, quickly put the brakes" on the building of nuclear power plants to "see what more, if anything, we can demand of the new power plants that are coming online."

As Tribune Newspapers reported, "[T]he crisis at Japan's Fukushima nuclear complex is likely to cast another cloud over the hoped-for [nuclear power] renaissance" in America. The scenes in Japan "have already conjured images of the panic surrounding the disasters of Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986."

But think about that for a moment. The Chernobyl disaster in Soviet-controlled Ukraine was indeed lethal. It directly caused dozens of deaths of plant workers and is believed to have caused thousands of cases of thyroid cancer, according to the U.N. But the U.N. adds, "Apart from this increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure two decades after the accident."

As for Three Mile Island, do you know how many people actually died from the partial meltdown at that facility in Pennsylvania? Zero. Not one. In fact, nobody was even injured. Nevertheless, Three Mile Island long led to irrational fears about nuclear energy production in the United States.

That is exactly the kind of panicked response that should be avoided in the wake of the disaster in Japan. Nuclear energy has proved to be a safe, reliable source of power in this country. While there are no absolute guarantees, the history of nuclear energy in the United States gives ample reason for confidence that it can be produced securely here as one component of meeting our energy needs.

Unduly clamping down on nuclear power, however, would increase our reliance on foreign oil. That would mean higher energy prices at a time when we can scarcely afford them. (Have you seen the prices at the gas pump lately?)

Taking stock of the causes of Japan's ongoing crisis is wise, but an emotional response that disregards the good track record of nuclear power in America is not.